Posted by: mystic444 | May 15, 2010

“Changes” In The Bible

But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother WITHOUT A CAUSE shall be in danger of the judgment…” (Matthew 5:22, New King James Version).

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment…” (Matthew 5:22, New International Version).

I have pretty much assumed over the years that Christians in general understood that there is a lot more involved in the modern English translations of the Bible (other than the New King James Version, and one or two other ‘revisions’ of the King James Bible) than just updating the English sentence structure, words, and phraseology – and making it more readable for the modern English reader. However in the past week I have had two people make comments about the ‘changes’ in the Bible made by modern translations like the NIV, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, New American Standard Version, etc. They’ve rather suddenly, it seems, come to realize that words and phrases are left out or added, and in some cases large passages are at least called into question (such as the ‘woman taken in adultery’ in John 8, or the last 12 verses of Mark’s Gospel).

One of those people sent me this link to a YouTube video produced by a man named David Daniels (who apparently does Chick Publications videos). Mr. Daniels made a big deal out of the fact that modern translations leave out the phrase “without a cause” from the above quoted verse in Matthew (as opposed to what he calls the “real Bible”, meaning the King James Version). The implication of his presentation is that ‘modernists’ who don’t like what the ‘real Bible’ has to say have ‘changed’ it to suit their nefarious purposes. In this case, he complains that leaving out that phrase would make even Jesus to be a sinner – because he was obviously angry when he drove the money changers out of the Temple.

Now I believe it’s necessary to point out that “changes” in the text such as that one were not made simply because ‘modernistic’ translators didn’t like the ‘real’ Biblical statements; they were made because there are actually some very old Greek manuscripts that read that way. The ‘modern’ translations are genuine translations of ‘genuine’ Greek texts of the New Testament.

The question of which textual reading is the ‘correct’ one can be a bit complicated, but there are 2 main schools of thought on the matter. The ‘popular’ school of thought, used in the ‘edited’ Greek texts that underlie most modern translations, is that the oldest available manuscripts are more likely to be ‘correct’ since they are closer in time to the original. But since these ‘oldest and best’ manuscripts disagree widely among themselves, other methods are used to obtain the ‘correct’ reading from among the many variants; and those other methods are highly subjective. For instance, they try to decide which of the readings would best explain how the other readings came about. As an example, in 1 Tim. 3:16 (using the NIV) it is said: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body…” The actual Greek text they were using reads: “Who appeared in a body”. The variations are: “Which appeared in a body”; and “God appeared in a body”. “God” is the reading that appears in the overwhelming majority of Greek manuscripts; the variations appear in a handful. It was decided that “Who” was most likely correct because (paradoxically) it is the hardest to explain, yet it most easily (in our translators’ opinions) explains how the other 2 variations came about. It was easy to see that someone might ‘correct’ “who” to “which” to make it fit grammatically in the text (“who” doesn’t make grammatical sense in the Greek or English of that passage); and the reading “God” could be seen to be a theological ‘correction’ to make more clear who the “who” referred to. Virtually everybody who follows this ‘popular school’ (the oldest manuscripts are the best) is in agreement on that passage, but the reasoning is obviously highly subjective (not everyone will agree on which reading ‘best explains’ the others) and in many other cases a lot of disagreement exists among the translators as to which variation is correct. So far as the reading “who” is concerned in this passage, those who accept it say the phrases which that word introduces (“who appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory”) were probably part of an early Christian hymn which Paul decided to quote. I suppose that could be, but I can’t off hand think of any other instance of a Christian hymn being quoted in any of the New Testament writings. They quote from the Psalms and other Old Testament writings, but not Christian hymns (so far as I can remember, anyhow).

The other main school – though not ‘popular’ today – is that the reading that appears in the majority of Greek manuscripts is most likely the correct reading. Even those who favor the ‘popular’ school of thought I just simplistically gave recognize that this ‘majority text’ represents a version of the New Testament that is at least as ‘ancient’ as the so-called ‘oldest and best’ manuscripts. And the ‘majority text’ has the advantage of being the ‘reading’ that has been accepted by the church at large throughout the ages. It is contended that probably the only reason that those so-called ‘oldest and best’ manuscripts still exist is that they were not used. The texts that were ‘accepted’ and used simply fell apart from use and required new copies to be made to carry on the tradition.

In the example of 1 Tim. 3:16 used above, it is pointed out that the overwhelming majority of the Greek manuscripts read “God appeared in a body”. So it has a major factor in its favor to begin with. So far as explaining how the other variants came about if “God” is correct, it’s really very simple. In those very old manuscripts, everything was written in capital letters (called ‘uncials’), and there were no spaces between words, nor were there any punctuation marks. Some words were abbreviated (like we abbreviate “Doctor” to “Dr.”). “God” was one of the words that were regularly abbreviated. In its full (non capitalized) form it looked like this: Θεὸς (Theos). In its abbreviated form, it was written with just the first and last letter, with a line drawn across the top of the two letters to indicate the abbreviation (like we use the period in “Dr.”). Written in the capital letters (‘uncials’) it looked like this: ΘΣ (I don’t know how to get a line to appear over the letters, so you’ll just have to imagine it). The word “who” (which a lot of translations render as “he”) looks like this: ΟΣ; and the word “which” is simply Ο. The resemblance between “God” (ΘΣ) and “who” (ΟΣ) is obvious. The word “who”, not being an abbreviation, would not have the line across the top, and the first letter doesn’t have the line across the middle which would make it a ‘theta’ rather than ‘omicron’. Those two lines were usually drawn with a quick and light pen stroke, and so they tended to fade more quickly than the more heavily drawn letter. In those same ‘oldest and best’ manuscripts that appear to read “who appeared in a body” rather than “God appeared in a body” there are hundreds of instances where the letter Ο appears, but which were obviously originally written as Θ – because the ‘word’ is simply not a word otherwise, or it makes no sense in the context. What had happened is that over time the line across the middle of that letter had faded away. And that’s almost certainly what happened in 1 Timothy 3:16: the line across the top of the letters, and the center line in the ‘theta’ (Θ), faded over the years so that it came to appear to be the word “who” (ΟΣ) rather than “God” (ΘΣ). Then some scribes, seeing the word ‘who’, decided that must have been a ‘scribal error’ because it didn’t make grammatical sense, so they changed it to “which” (Ο).

So there you have a brief (and very simplistic) presentation of ‘textual criticism’. Those ‘changes in the Bible’ present in modern translations are genuine ‘old’ readings of real Greek manuscripts. Whether or not they represent the ‘original’ readings will depend on which ‘school of thought’ you follow in ‘textual criticism’.

Even if you follow the ‘school’ which underlies the modern translations, I don’t think the absence of those words “without a cause” makes any difference. It would be understood that when Jesus said “whoever is angry with his brother“, the anger spoken of was a non-legitimate, or unjustified, anger. We frequently use ‘blanket’ statements when it is understood that there are ‘exceptions’ to the ‘rule’, and there’s no reason to assume it would be wrong for Jesus to do so also. There are other places in the Bible that speak out against anger. In Ephesians 4:31 and 32 Paul wrote: “Put away all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.” Put away all anger; yet just a few verses previously he said (verse 26): “Be angry but do not sin“. Even though he said put aside all anger, it was recognized that some anger was not sinful. That would be the case with Jesus’ statement also, supposing the words “without a cause” were not in the original text. He could say “whoever is angry with his brother is in danger of the judgment“, while at the same time recognizing that some anger is legitimate, is not sinful, and doesn’t place one in danger of judgment. One should be careful not to be overly literal in reading anything, but especially the Bible. I personally believe that, at least generally speaking, the ‘majority text’ is correct, so I believe the words ‘without a cause’ were original. The phrase “without a cause” is, in the Greek, one word – εἰκη (eikē) – and is in fact present in the vast majority of Greek manuscripts. I can’t say for sure how it came to be left out of a few, but it’s not too hard to imagine a scribe being a bit careless and jumping over the word as he was copying. It’s also not hard to imagine a scribe thinking to himself “well, there’s never any legitimate cause for anger” and deciding to ‘correct’ the text. (That’s what some early ‘fathers’ did with the ‘woman taken in adultery’ passage. They complained that the story made Jesus ‘too soft’ on sin, so they claimed it couldn’t have been any part of the ‘original Gospel’). There are no doubt understandable reasons (whether ‘carelessness’ or deliberate) why ‘changes’ were made in every place where there is a difference in the manuscripts. Over all, they just don’t matter so long as you are willing to compare one passage with others to get the ‘big picture’ of what the Bible has to say (and not press for an overly literal understanding).

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Responses

  1. “I can’t off hand think of any other instance of a Christian hymn being quoted in any of the New Testament writings”

    The first part of John 1 might be a hymn.

    • Thanks for the comment, Steve. 😎 I certainly don’t have any evidence to say it wasn’t. On reflection, I suppose Philippians 2:6-11 might be a first century Christian hymn also. The problem with seeking to claim any particular passage of New Testament writings is a quote from a hymn is that it’s pure speculation – based entirely on subjective opinion (at least so far as I’m aware). There is no external evidence to substantiate the idea. Those passages currently exist only either in the New Testament writings themselves, or in quotations which are fairly clearly derived from the N.T. (not the other way around).

      The only basis for supposing the passage in 1 Timothy was derived from a Christian hymn is the acceptance of the reading ‘who’ instead of ‘God’ in the verse. Since ‘who’ doesn’t make grammatical sense, the supposition that the passage is a quote from another source becomes necessary. Since I reject the reading of ‘who’ based on the overwhelming external testimony in favor of ‘God’ – and the origin of ‘who’ and ‘which’ is so easily explained based on an original reading of ‘God’ (the fading of the two horizontal lines – in the ‘theta’ and the line indicating a contraction) – the supposition of a hymn quote does not become necessary for me. However, even assuming that the correct reading is ‘God’, it’s still possible the passage is a hymn quote.

      I definitely have no reason to object to the idea that the New Testament writers quoted from Christian hymns. It’s a very interesting possibility. But it’s entirely speculative. The quotes from Old Testament Psalms are clearly provable; so far, quotes from hymns are not provable since we (to my knowledge) have no records of such hymns remaining to us. Though New Testament statements assure us that Christian hymns did exist, we just don’t have any remaining records of any of those hymns – or at least not the hymns from which those New Testament passages are proposed to be derived.

      Thanks both for reading my post, and making your comment. The idea of John quoting from a Christian hymn is certainly an interesting speculation. 🙂


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